The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Comey made the same error everyone made — assuming he knew who’d win

A former campaign staffer on the ironies in the Inspector General's report.

The former FBI director made important decisions based on hubris and error. (AP)
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For former Clinton campaign staff like me, the Justice Department Inspector General’s report on the Clinton email investigation is an experience of frustrating vindication and mouth-dropping irony. It is somewhat satisfying to see the inquiry conclude that Comey “clearly and dramatically” departed from FBI and DOJ norms in how he handled things, which was clearly true of his announcement, mere days before the election, that he was reopening the bureau’s study of the matter. The report called Comey “insubordinate” for failing to alert his superiors, Deputy Attorney General Sally Yates and Attorney General Loretta E. Lynch, about certain moves.

But I am not sure there is a word in the English language to describe how I felt when I read that Comey had occasionally used his personal Gmail account to conduct official business. I’d felt the same sense of outrage and helplessness when I heard members of the press lament the outsized attention Clinton’s emails got during the campaign. I won’t re-litigate the coverage of Clinton’s emails here (and how I believe suspicion of the motivations of a woman seeking power is at the root of the email controversy), but I can’t help but wonder we don’t now distrust Comey’s the way people distrusted Clinton. (Hint: It has more to do with his gender and her ambitions than his email.)

Most consequentially, though, the report made us face the irony once again that the FBI’s investigation of Clinton’s email was a public matter that garnered enormous attention, while the FBI investigation of the Trump campaign and Russia’s interference in the campaign remained a secret. Imagine a world in which Comey never sent the ill-advised and hasty letter to Capitol Hill but had let us know that the FBI was investigating the Trump campaign’s possible involvement with Russia’s interference in our elections. It’s a world in which Hillary Clinton is almost certainly president of the United States.

Despite the frustrations I felt in reading the Inspector General’s report, there are important lessons contained within it. It’s a cautionary tale of the damage that can be done when political leaders believe they can predict democratic outcomes, and then act on those false assumptions. It’s clear that the underlying assumption upon which Comey and others at the FBI made decisions — on how to handle both the Clinton/email and Trump/Russia investigations — was that Clinton would be president.

You see the underlying assumption of a Clinton win throughout the FBI’s handling of both investigations. In Comey’s book, “A Higher Loyalty,” he writes in detail about the painstaking process, involving hundreds of agents, the FBI went through to investigate Clinton. He notes that concern over the public and political reaction to the investigation — as opposed to merely doing a thorough investigation — in part drove his desire to have such an exhaustive effort. In describing the FBI’s effort, Comey noted in his book that “We’d never convince Clinton haters … [B]ut hopefully we could persuade a majority of fair and open-minded Americans” that the FBI had done a thorough investigation and made the right call. It was Comey’s desire to protect the bureau’s public reputation that pushed him toward a path that ended with disastrous consequences.

We already knew from Comey’s public comments that he believed Clinton was going to win and that belief was in his mind when he made the decision to send his letter to Capitol Hill. What the IG report newly reveals, via private messages agents sent each other at critical times during the campaign (including messages expressing concern over how Trump was portraying the Comey letter on the day the letter was sent and messages expressing shock and devastation on the day after the election) is how the view that Clinton would win was held by many within the FBI working on both investigations. It’s not that Comey or FBI agents allowed their political beliefs, and concern about a Trump presidency, to drive their decisions. It’s that, according to the report, Comey took political, if not partisan, considerations into account in making decision on how to handle the Clinton investigation by letting his assumption that Clinton would win affect his actions. Bias doesn’t have to be partisan to be destructive.

There is a lesson there for all of us who engage in politics — elected officials, practitioners like me, and the press. We can’t treat politics like a game that we can predict or control. If there ever were days when we had all the answers, where we knew the rules of the game and could insist that they be followed, they are gone now. They aren’t coming back. Nor should they. That was a broken system that contributed to voters’ sense that politics was a game that didn’t concern them. Now, at least, the stakes are crystal clear.